Jose Fernandez has USF back in the NCAA Tournament. And as the Bulls prepare to face Texas Tech tonight in Lubbock, he can appreciate the opportunity his team has to take its program to another level.
"We've been on the wrong side of the bubble two, three other times," said Fernandez, who took USF to the NCAAs in 2006 but also has seven NIT berths over the past 10 years. "I'm happy for (the players) because this is something they're going to remember for a lifetime. It was great to see the emotions on their faces (at the announcement) and the excitement. It's going to be a springboard. Having young kids go to the NCAA Tournament, now they know what it's going to take to get there."
The 10th-seeded Bulls (21-10) are in the same position as USF's men's team a year ago, hoping for their first-ever tournament win. Getting it can alter perceptions
"Once you do have success in the NCAA Tournament, then kids you're recruiting view you as an NCAA Tournament team that not only has a chance to win your league, but to go far in the NCAAs," Connecticut coach and seven-time national champion Geno Auriemma said Thursday. "I think that's the time line Jose and his staff are on right now."
Every time the Bulls break a huddle, they've yelled "March," not only for the goal on their calendar, but the relentless, methodical path they would take to get there. At 210-194 over 13 seasons, Fernandez is USF's winningest basketball coach — men's or women's. His Bulls won the 2009 WNIT, but a win tonight would be a landmark step forward.
"He loves kids that work hard and respect him," guard Andrea Smith said. "He stays on you and is persistent about the things he wants for this program and this team. He pushes me to be the best player I can be, and I love that from him."
Fernandez, 41, made this run with a contract that expires after the season (paying him $225,000 for 2012-13). It wasn't until the NCAA bid was announced Monday that athletic director Doug Woolard committed to giving Fernandez an extension.
"I was shocked to hear he didn't have his contract renewed yet," Auriemma said. "Everybody thinks it's easy to do; that the next person is going to be way better than the one you have. That's not always the case. I'm happy for him. He's done an amazing job."
ESPN analyst Beth Mowins, who called the Big East tournament, said Fernandez has been "terrific" in guiding USF to the top half of a difficult conference.
"I think he has everything in place that they need to be even more successful," she said. "The expectations before he got there were much lower. Now people do grumble when there's no trip to the NCAA Tournament. A year like this, when the Big East was awfully strong at the top with two No. 1 seeds in UConn and Notre Dame, speaks to the level of competition he's had to face every week."
His challenge will change with conference realignment. UConn remains. But Notre Dame leaves after this season, Louisville and Rutgers after next. So USF is in position to be the top challenger to UConn.
Fernandez has a strong recruiting class coming, and with the stability of a new contract, the Bulls should enter their new league with confidence and momentum — even more so if they can pull off a win or two this weekend.
"You're talking about a team that could be perennially first or second in the league and competing for an NCAA bid every year," Auriemma said. "This is a really good turn of events for South Florida basketball."